Monday, November 08, 2004

More Election Afterthoughts

My older daughter - generally very tolerant and fiercely protective of the "needs" of others, especially if that need involves some kind of disability, or even a weakness of caste or character that puts one at a disadvantage in the face of a sneering majority - found herself unaccountably annoyed with the sample ballot that arrived in the mail a couple weeks prior to the Big Day. Why? It was in two languages, Spanish and English. It was huge, what with all the amendments to the constitution and the county charter and all the judges seeking retention and all the fellows asking to be put in charge of water and soil conservation. She wondered what the cost of postage might be to send this out to everyone in a metropolitan area with a population in excess of one million.

In her opinion, the inability to speak English is not a disability akin to being, say, wheelchair-bound or blind. Nor is it the sign of weakness that might accrue to a member of an oppressed minority. It is rather a sign of stubborn insularity, or of laziness, or perhaps indifference to, or possibly contempt for, the mother culture to whom you have appealed for adoption, but accompanied by no real desire to become a part of the family. "If you don't speak English," she wondered, "why are you voting?"

Which raised some interesting questions in my own mind to which I really don't know the answers:

1. Are only citizens allowed to vote? [I have always assumed this to
be the case.]

2. When one registers to vote, is one required to provide proof of citizenship?

3. If so, did the privilege of acquiring citizenship also entail some kind of language requirement, say, a test, giving proof of minimal fluency? If you're from Latin America, for example, are you at least as articulate as Sergio Garcia? If you're from Haiti, can you do a Jacque Chirac? If African-American, can you enunciate at least as well as your average rap-singer? If white, is your incidence of garbling no worse than the President's?

4. If you are a citizen, why can you not read and write English?

5. And thus (to repeat), if you cannot read and write English, why are you voting? How did you become informed on the issues? Via word of mouth? Univision? Babelfish?

6. When was the last time you read an article in the Claremont Review of Books, First Things, or the New Republic? Have you ever heard of these publications? Foreign language versions of People Magazine and The National Enquirer don't count because there are too many pictures and the writing sucks.

7. What is a "provisional ballot"? ( A new one on me - guess I need to read the Congressional Quarterly.) When one registers to vote, one is assigned a precinct. Why would you not show up at the correct precinct? Why would there be a question about your "eligibility" to vote? Why can't you just vote like everyone else - according to the rules?

8. What are the rules?

9. Why must every vote be cast, let alone counted? What does a vote cast in ignorance add up to other than the mountainous sum of itself?

10. Can you explain what's wrong with the following paragraph lifted from a college student-citizen's final exam essay and further explain to yours truly why it was given a passing score by entities other than yours truly?

"There are many shopping malls in London.
The malls in London have the latest fashion clothe.
A costumer does not have to try on the clothe
the he likes. each shop have its own model
on whatever the costumer decided to buy to try..."

Ah, comes the objection. You're one of those hate-filled retro-bigots who would reinsitute literacy tests to suppress the voice of the ethnically and economically disadvantaged. Actually, that seems to me the minimally reasonable thing we can do. How about a knowledge test to back it up? The standards aren't that high. If you can tell me whether Ben Franklin was ever a president of the United States, or whether he "invented" lightning by flying a kite, or whether Albert Einstein created the nuclear family, you're in. If, after getting off the boat, being fished out of the Gulf of Mexico, or stepping off the airplane, you can ask with grammatical exactitude, "Which way to Disney World?", or write on a piece of paper, "Where's a cheap hotel?", you're one of us.
With universal education now the rule, and with "no child left behind" the order of the day, one needs a really good excuse to achieve illiteracy - a drug-addled mother, for instance, who ingested heavily during pregnancy. But if one does manage to attain it, one will be unable to master the following task:

To vote, complete the arrow <= = pointing to your choice:

President and Vice-President

George W. Bush <= =
Dick Cheney Rep

John F. Kerry <= =
John Edwards Dem

On the other hand, I am sobered by another reality: George Bush carried Florida comfortably this time, and our voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing for "parental notice of termination of a minor's pregnancy." Sounds good, right? But those same voters retained all five judges of the 5th District Court of Appeal eligible for ousting, including two justices of the Florida Supreme Court, that august assembly that tried to rewrite Florida law in its own left-wacko image in the 2000 election, and who have now, by declaring Terri's Law unconstitutional, found it in their hearts to make straight the way for Terri's would-be killers. So if the "moral values" vote did play a disproportionate role in the election, it's not clear to me precisely how or to what degree.

But if it did, and I were pinned to the wall about the matter, I suppose I would choose the love of the good in those semi-literate hearts over their lack of our language any day of the week. I just wish I knew how they voted, and why. Were the 40% of Hispanics who voted for Bush in love with his moral values or his immigration policy?

It's no longer possible to hold that education equals character, or that literacy results in love of the Lord. Besides, our schools have gotten out of that business. Where is one more likely to receive the kind of knowledge that keeps a nation strong: from a Sunday sermon or a humanities course at Harvard? Whose vote would you rather have counted: James Carville's or that of the cleaning lady from Colombia, newly minted citizen who attends church every Sunday and announces proudly that she attends the local 'hoonyer collitch'? She may have a long and hard time of it, would not fit in too well at your cocktail parties, but the counsel she seeks may be wiser than his.

Just for fun, I polled some of my classes before the election, curious as to whom they might vote for, what issues got their attention. None were required to answer, but most volunteered cheerfully. During a discussion of where the candidates stood on the 'life' issues, one young woman who writes fairly well, and whose country of origin is British Guyana, protested that, "Oh no. John Kerry is against abortion."

I asked her what made her think this. "Because he's Catholic," she said. I mention her because she was not alone in this opinion. This kind of ignorance may not be invincible, but neither is it caused by a lack of familiarity with the English language.

Good post, Bill. Dual language ballots make me angry too. And ditto with respect to literacy tests, knowledge tests, and all the rest of it.
However -- and I know that your daughter can tell the difference -- it should be recognized that difficulty with English is not necessarily "a sign of stubborn insularity, or of laziness, or perhaps indifference to, or possibly contempt for, the mother culture to whom you have appealed for adoption, but accompanied by no real desire to become a part of the family." Many are those who, because of newness or merely convenient (as opposed to stubborn) insularity, do not speak English well and yet are anything but contemptuous or indifferent to the culture of their new home. Assimilation takes time, typically a generation or more.
True, those who are not literate in English should not be voting, but I don't think voting was their idea to begin with.
Posted by Jeff Culbreath email at November 8, 2004 04:28 PM

I don't object to Spanish ballots - after all, Spanish was the first language of much of the USA (including FL) until about 150 years ago. It is still the first language of Puerto Rico. Heck, I don't object to there being French ballots in Louisiana. What bugs me is the idea that we have to have a ballot for every single non-English language group out there. Oh, the Spanish language media does a pretty darn good job on discussing the issues, at least where I live. And my friends and co-workers from the Spanish language countries, once they become citizens, are pretty conscientious about knowing the issues and voting their consciences. They do need to know fairly decent English to pass the Citizenship exam, but some of the technical language in the ballots is pretty hard for even a native English speaker to understand, so I think that offering that info in Spanish is not such a bad idea.However - I think that the cost of doing this should be born by volunteer groups.
Posted by alicia email at November 8, 2004 06:09 PM

The problem is that we don't have any official, legal national language. Thus, no one is required to know any one language in order to be a citizen of our country. If we had a legal national language, that wouldn't be the case.
Posted by Nathan email at November 8, 2004 10:20 PM

Sorry, Jeff. Literacy and knowledge tests don't make me angry. They ought to be administered prior to citizenship - not before entering the voting booth - to insure that some measure of assimilation precedes the swearing of the oath. To take the largest immigrant group, our neighbors to the south - they have not been voting their Catholic consciences. They've been voting for Democrats, and the majority of them did it again this time. Knowledge of our history and language might or might not change that. I don't care. They should still have to qualify for the position, and right now those qualifications are pretty low. Nathan has a point.
Puerto Rico, Alicia? Last I looked they weren't a part of the Union. And at the time our nation was founded, I wasn't aware that Spanish was a big player. I believe our constitution is in English.
Posted by William Luse email at November 9, 2004 03:13 AM

, curious as to for whom they might vote,
Posted by Ann email at November 9, 2004 09:46 AM

Bill, my writing skills need some work. When I said "ditto" to literacy and knowledge tests, I meant "ditto" to your opinion about them. I agree 100%, and would probably add a few more obstacles as well. My only real contribution to the discussion is in the next paragraph.
Posted by Jeff Culbreath email at November 9, 2004 11:06 AM

The constitution was written in English, and the basis of US law in 49 states is the English Common Law (Louisiana being the exception). But the US more than doubled its size by the acquisition of Spanish language enclaves from Florida to California, with Texas being a real large bite. Spanish was spoken on this continent before English was. That being said, I have no objection it principle to a literacy test - if it truly measured literacy in one's language. I would be concerned that certain interest groups could convert such a test into a political ideology test (for example - the so-called constitutional right to privacy) that would disenfranchise such voters as you or me. Puerto Rico, while not part of the USA, enjoys a somewhat priveliged position here. I know that immigrants from PR, unlike immigrants from the rest of the world, are granted certain civil 'rights' immediately (including medicaid and social security benefits). I don't know what their 'citizenship' status is vis a vis voting - I will try to find out.
Posted by alicia email at November 9, 2004 08:34 PM

Jeff, contribution accepted.
Ann: ?
Alicia: I understand what you're saying and agree with most of it (accept the part about not minding ballots in Spanish), but saying that "Spanish was spoken on this continent before English was" is like saying Cherokee was spoken before Spanish. And I still say Puerto Rico's irrelevant. They're neither a nation nor a state. They are (I think) a U.S. commonwealth, or something like that, which allows them certain benefits (two of which you mention - I trust they pay taxes to earn them), but their residents cannot vote. I just don't see how the speaking of Spanish in PR tranlates into Spanish ballots here. Hawaii, which is a state, might have made a more interesting analogy.
Posted by William Luse email at November 10, 2004 03:00 AM

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